[Campus commentary]Losing our heritageOn Feb. 11, Namdaemun, the six-century-old gate designated as Korea’s No. 1 National Treasure, collapsed in a fire caused by arson.
Thousands of Koreans stayed up all night watching it collapse and shed tears, broken-hearted. I, myself, could not say a word after seeing the photographs of Namdaemun in ruins. I was overcome with unbearable sadness.
Over its 5,000-year history, Korea has suffered too many plunders and foreign invasions, causing it to lose its valuable national treasures.
Repeated devastation brought by war laid waste to considerable amounts of our cultural and historical relics.
However, it seems that ordinary Koreans still did not have much consciousness about our cultural assets or the issues and problems related to them until the recent Namdaemun fire.
As many experts pointed out, the incident can be blamed on Korean people’s indifference toward the value of national cultural assets.
While I was working for The Yonsei Annals, the English news magazine of Yonsei University, I once wrote an article about lost Korean cultural assets ― especially ones taken out of the country after foreign invasions. I found that people’s indifference was one of the biggest problems that made retrieval of lost cultural properties difficult.
What then could be the cause for Koreans’ lack of attention to valuable cultural properties?
In my view, the people’s indifference is due to Korean society’s low interest in the liberal arts and social science fields and a lack of education in these fields.
Usually people gain their knowledge and attitudes about their country’s culture from education in school. However in Korea, from elementary grades through their high school years, the education system teaches Korean students to memorize and accumulate factual knowledge, rather than helping them actually understand and appreciate what they have learned.
Even after high school, there is not much attention paid to teaching the liberal arts and social science subjects indepth; the only focus or subjects of concern to Korean universities are those that can help students gain employment, money and honor after their graduation.
The current educational environment of Korean universities only helps Korean university students become benefit-focused, but not value-focused.
Furthermore, indifference toward Korean culture and society within the campus and Korean society in general will definitely cause the future leaders of Korea to grow into what we can call mindless people.
In the past few years, we have lost many different cultural properties not by natural disasters but by man-made disasters, which could have been stopped before their occurrence.
Namdaemun may have sacrificed itself to teach us that it is time for us to be concerned about our cultural assets. It’s time to learn and teach the proper values of those cultural properties.
If we do not change our attitudes, we can expect it will be only a matter of time that there will be another crisis like the loss of Namdaemun.
*The writer is a junior at Yonsei University and former social affairs editor of The Yonsei Annals news. magazine.
by Chung Chee-hae
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
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